I was standing in a tiny shabby windowless office, trying to convince Lucia to give up her baby. What right did I have to do this? What was I doing here?
After graduating from being an English major to being an unemployed one, I had joined the faith community that supplements the professional staff at Covenant House in New York. Everyone on its inescapable mailing list knows that Covenant House is a shelter for homeless children and youth. At once, I was assigned as a caseworker on the unwed mothers' floor.
What did I know about social work? What did I know about teens with babies? I could declaim Chaucer in Middle English. I could debate the relative merits of Faulkner or Hemingway. I knew nothing about street life. A resident on the floor sized me up in the first half hour: "You ain't gonna last," she assured me.
After the first few weeks, I noticed my caseload was top-heavy with Spanish-speaking girls. This was puzzling: They were a minority in the population we served, and I was the only caseworker who spoke no Spanish. I called this to the attention of my supervisor. "Why do you give me all the Hispanic girls?"
"It's true you don't speak Spanish," she told me. "But the real language of these girls is passion. You speak passion."
This is how Lucia appeared on my caseload one night. The intake report stressed that she'd come in that day with a seriously sick baby. Hydrocephalic was the word. The plan was to get Lucia to surrender the baby to the hospital. Thirty years ago, such babies died more than half the time, and this infant wasn't expected to survive. The goal was to make the child as comfortable as possible until the end. It was my job to get Lucia to give up her baby.
She was 18 and had been living on the A-train between uptown and downtown Manhattan for months. She had nothing in her life but that baby. She didn't understand what it meant that her baby had water on the brain. How is water a danger?
I tried to explain, tried to get her to see that surrendering the child was the best thing she could do for someone she loved. I was as clear and calm as possible. But Lucia only glowered at me, shouting Spanish across the space between us. Most of the Latinas who came to us were bilingual but often pretended not to understand English when they didn't like what they were hearing.
Our interview had gone on for an hour, and we were getting nowhere. I had the late shift, so it was after midnight as I debated with a teenager about the life of her child.
I kept watching the almost motionless baby she guarded in her arms and I felt despair. What good was I doing here? No good at all. I was enraging this fierce, young mother, not persuading her. If I couldn't find the right words, Lucia might just march back into the subway and her baby would die somewhere between Port Authority and Washington Heights. Tears sprang into my eyes at the horror of the thought. I sat down and put my head in my hands to hide my pathetic weakness.
"Wait a minute." Lucia's voice was full of suspicion as she asked me, "Why are you crying? It ain't your baby."
I looked straight up into her eyes. "I'm crying because I'm sad. It's appropriate to cry when you're sad. Your baby is going to die and that's sad. You are going to lose someone you love, and that is very sad."
To my surprise, that tough little teenager started to shake. Tears rained down her cheeks. Lucia held out the precious bundle in her arms to me and said, "All right. Go ahead. Take my baby."
"It ain't your baby," she had said. And no argument in the world was going to make this mother give up her child. Words, in any language, hers or mine, couldn't bridge the canyon of space between Lucia and me. But passion -- ah, passion! -- was the language that brought our hearts together in the end.
[Alice Camille is the author of This Transforming Word and other titles found at www.alicecamille.com.]